Rare earth elements have continued to hit the headlines this year with companies and governments alike concerned about maintaining a reliable source of rare earths for consumer electronics, electric vehicles, and military applications.
President Donald Trump signing the 2019 National Defence Authorization Act, banning the U.S. Department of Defense from acquiring rare earths or rare earth containing magnets from China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea in an effort to reduce the supply risk for these strategically important materials. The Chinese government has also decided to limit, the current dominant rare earth producers, international exports of the critical metals.
Rare earth supply risk and the individual factors which contribute to it have been explored in a recently published paper by authors from University of Exeter, Camborne School of Mines, and KU Leuven. The work compares 10 individual impact categories which can contribute to material criticality, which is a combination of supply risk and economic importance. The individual rare earth elements are compared against five reference metals (gold, copper, platinum-group metals, iron, and lithium) highlighting that the major contributors to rare earth supply risk are;
- The country concentration of mine production
- The company concentration of mine production
- The fact that rare earths are commonly produced as a by-product of other metals
- The lack of recycling of rare earths
The research also highlighted that rare earths need to be considered as individual elements. Certain mines only produce a select group of the rare earths and certain rare earths are significantly more critical as raw materials. Neodymium for example has a much greater economic importance because of its application in high-strength permanent magnets, which are common place in modern electric cars. Cerium and Lanthanum in contrast has a much lower criticality score due to the fact that it is more common in a range of rare earth deposits as well as having a lower economic importance.
Robert Pell, PhD student at Camborne School of Mines, based at the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall, author of the paper said:
“Understanding the risks of raw material supply disruption is useful for companies and governments when making strategic plans. This is particularly significant for rare earths as they are necessary for the push to a low-carbon economy be it in electric cars or wind turbines”.
The free to access article can be found at the following link:
The research is part of the SoSRare project which aims to understand how rare earths form in natural systems, and to investigate new processes that will lower the environmental impact of rare earth extraction and recovery. Find out more at: https://www.bgs.ac.uk/SoSRARE/
Rob Pell is a Journalist and Geologist currently researching security of supply for REEs as part of the SoS RARE project. He is based between Tsinghua University in China and Camborne School of Mines in the UK.
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